How to Make the Most of Middle School

How to Make the Most of Middle School

What happens if your child doesn’t make the most of middle school?

Every fall, I hear from parents of high school seniors with last-minute questions about getting into and getting money for college. If it’s still early enough in the season, they will often sign up for my firm’s Comprehensive Assessment

That’s where we do a deep dive into their teen’s prospects based on academics and activities. We also determine the best-fit colleges for their needs and interests and discuss options to get more scholarship dollars. 

There are usually several moments during this 90-minute assessment when I feel the painful cringe of the parent. I know they think, “I wish I had known . . . “ 

It’s a feeling every parent has had at one point or another when you regret something you did or didn’t do for your child. What’s so harshly regretful about college admissions? That the decisions we may or may not make as parents can not only hurt our teen’s chances of admissions and future but can cost our pocketbooks dearly.

Even when parents of college-bound seniors have very limited options or opportunities to undo bad grades, I still encourage them to consider alternatives like college list revisions or a formal gap/bridge year experience. Senior year of high school can still be a new beginning regardless of how ugly the transcript or resume may be.

The one thing that can’t be changed is the middle school years, which are so critical for high school and college success.

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Here are 3 tips that every middle school parent should heed to avoid future regret in senior year of high school:

Make sure your teen reads and writes for pleasure.

The best habits always start earlier.

By the time your teen is a junior or senior in high school, it will be even more difficult to develop a love for reading and writing if that habit has not been nurtured from earlier years. Parents often tell me that their teens enjoyed reading when they were younger but stopped in middle school or high school when the homework increased. That may sound plausible, but it’s really not an excuse. Everybody is “busy.” But when you enjoy something, you make time for it.

I feel that students lose their intellectual curiosity and that’s why they no longer read or write for pleasure.

Long story short . . . colleges are seeking students who are intellectually curious, and that quality is only nurtured over time. It is likely that your teen will have a college application essay or two that asks specifically about what they read for pleasure. The inability to respond thoughtfully and authentically to such a prompt will dramatically decrease their chances of being accepted. 

Here are 5 tips for teaching your teen to love reading.

Pay attention to math placement.

I have met more and more high school seniors who want to major in STEM fields but did not take algebra until high school. To have the best chances for a competitive application for any STEM (Science Technology Engineering and Mathematics) major, a teen should take algebra by 8th grade. This will also position them for any additional testing, like SAT subject tests, that may be “recommended”, i.e. required for college applications.

Want to learn more about college entrance tests? Here are 3 reasons why taking the SAT and ACT could be a waste of time and money. 

Use the summers to develop social and independent skills.

There are a number of “sleep-away” camps offered during the summer break of middle school. Some may have an academic component while others may emphasize sports or social skills. 

Either way, when teens learn how to “be” when they are away from the comforts of home and familiarity, they gain self-confidence, independence and so much more. Introducing these types of programs in middle school match well with them developmentally and there are even programs with shorter stays. If 7 days is too long, 3 or 4 day overnight programs for a middle school student are plentiful.

By the time a teen is in senior year, if they have never spent a night away from home then the thought of going away to college may be too daunting. The teen may be ill-equipped to handle the freedoms that come with living in a dorm; doing chores like laundry and cooking, or even advocating for themselves in college. 

Implementing these tips in middle school will help ensure your child has a smoother path to college and a more successful experience once they’re there. 

What would you add to this list? Please comment below.

If you want more tips and insight on helping your college-bound teen, purchase your copy of “What to Know Before They Go: College Edition” today!

If you’re looking for one-on-one guidance to help you get into (or pay for) college, click here for help. 

Want to see more posts like this? Don’t miss these: 

What to expect at freshman orientation

Top 10 must-dos for college-bounds juniors

7 ways to support your child during the college application process


This article was originally published November 19, 2017, but has since been updated.

Choosing the Right High School

choosing the right high school makes difference

Are you already thinking about high school for your college-bound middle-schooler?

It’s important to start thinking about high school options at least a few years ahead, especially if your teen’s middle school ends at the 8th grade.

What if you don’t have 1-2 years to plan for a school change?

Understanding firsthand just how difficult it can be to choose the right high school for your child is what inspired this post.

Before I move on to tips for choosing the right high school for your child, let’s discuss why you might be considering switching your child’s high school in the first place.

Reasons for changing high schools.

Parents consider changing their teen’s high school for a variety of reasons, including:

  • Disapproval of curriculum at current school
  • Over-testing
  • Relocation
  • Marital separation or divorce
  • Bad social environment for teen
  • Safety concerns
  • Current school closing

Personally, I’ve had to choose different schools for my children for curriculum/testing, safety concerns, social reasons, and relocations. Each time has been different because each grade level is different. Also, my children are quite different from each other.

Regardless of the time parents have to make all the necessary decisions about high school, this one decision (which school your teen attends) is important enough that parents must know their options.

Important choices for parents to make.

These are some of the critical decisions parents will have to make when they’re choosing the right high school for their child:

  • Independent (i.e. private) school—day or boarding
  • Parochial
  • Public school district, including charter
  • Homeschool

Again, given the different personalities of my own children, they have attended day, boarding, and public schools. Plus, I homeschooled… yikes!

Each time my children changed schools, I followed a basic process which included:

  1. School visits
  2. Online research
  3. Personal networking
  4. Considering social dynamics

These four aspects are very important when choosing the right high school for your child.

Here’s how each step of this process can help you choose the right high school for your teen.

Conduct high school visits for and with your teen.

Changing schools can be just as anxiety-ridden for the child as for the parent.

If I’m considering a new school, I generally visit for the first time without my child. This gives me an opportunity to speak with the principal, teachers, and staff one-on-one.

I also observe the condition of the school and notice how students are responding.

When I meet with teachers, I not only ask them about their grade, but their perception of other grade cohorts at the school.

The postings on the wall can say a lot: If there are a lot of signs with directions about behavior, then it may indicate that a school has safety/discipline issues.

I don’t mind waiting in the office; I can see and hear about typical issues there. Sometimes, the office staff isn’t discreet, and I learn a lot from overhearing those interactions.

The other thing I notice is the smells in the school. (It may sound strange but it’s still part of the learning environment.)

As best as possible, I’m trying to get a sense for what the school day would be like for my teen.

I strongly advise parents against the first day of school being the first day that a child sees a new school.

A good opportunity for any child to see a new school is a “shadow” day.

Shadow days are good for any grade level. It allows the child to have the face-to-face experience of visiting a class and getting a better feel for the environment—I only took my child to visit a school if it was a serious consideration.

The campus visits for parents and children is a crucial aspect of the new school search. (Your campus visit is in addition to any open houses held by the school.)

While we’re on the topic, you’ll want to visit this post for tips on surviving college campus visits with your teen.

Save time with online searches.

There is so much information online when it comes to choosing the right high school that it can be hard to know where to start and how to manage.

I love discovering new information but when it comes to searching online, I can waste hours (that I don’t have) reading information on random sites that overwhelm, rather than help.

Here are some online resources that I’ve used to inform my search, which may help you save time:

Bonus tip: Even if you’re not considering a particular school, if the school has a strong reputation, you can still poke around on their site and see what they’re offering. This may trigger some ideas for what questions to ask and how to evaluate the options you’re considering.

Network with other parents.

As always, it helps to talk with other parents in and outside your network about a new school you’re considering.

I’ve found that I can get more information over a cup of coffee than anywhere else.

In each conversation, I make sure to ask these five key questions:

  1. Why did your family choose this school?
  2. What keeps your family at this school?
  3. How would you describe the parent community at this school?
  4. What’s been your involvement at this school?
  5. What do you wish you had known before your teen enrolled?

(If there’s any juicy gossip, I want to hear that too, although I may not ask directly!)

In fact, even when my children changed to a new grade, I would talk with parents in the next grade level to get a sense of their experience. Often, the next grade/teacher can be a whole new experience and adjustment.

Consider social dynamics.

Another factor to consider when you’re choosing the right high school for your child is the social dynamics at a given school.

As my children entered high school, it was more difficult to consider changing schools because of all the social dynamics that play an even bigger role in their experience. That’s why this step deserves special attention.

I’ll admit that I was particularly concerned about the social aspects of high school for my daughter. (Every mom of a daughter can probably identify with this.)

The teen years can be particularly challenging for girls, and moms must be sensitive to the social environment of high school, which can influence their identity formation and self-confidence.

If you follow these four steps, they will help you choose the right high school for your child, to set them up for future success along with a better experience in the meantime.

If you’ve researched a new school for your child, what was your approach? Which resources did you use? Please leave a comment and share with other parent readers.

If you’re interested in one-on-one support and other resources to help you or your child get into (or pay) for college, click here.

If you’d like to learn more about preparing middle school students for college, you’ll want to have a look at these articles too:

7 Ways to Support Your Child During the College Application Process
College Scholarships for Middle School Students
Preparing for College in the Ninth Grade


This article was originally published on April 17, 2018, and has been updated.

How to get School Records Organized in 2 easy steps

parents of middle schoolers school records

For parents of middle-schoolers, midway through the academic year is a good time to set up your organization system for school records.

All of my new client meetings begin with a review of school records, like their transcripts, teacher comments and achievement tests. I realize that it’s no small task to keep track of numerous odd-sized bits of paper, sometimes carbon-copied with faded dates and scores. And what do you do with those colorful guides with rows of achievement scores and percentile rankings?

As a mom of 3, I understand how overwhelming it can be to keep track of all the information that comes home from school. When you combine the physical documents with email notifications, it gets even messier . . .

1. Set up filing system first

Using the term “filing system” may sound a bit intimidating. However, once you set it up, it will be easy to maintain. You can begin your child’s academic file with a manila folder labeled with their name.

What to Keep in Manila Folder

Your child’s academic folder at home should hold:

  • all classroom-based assessment reports for each testing year
  • standardized test reports, such as EXPLORE, PSAT, SAT
  • letters on district scoring
  • copies of individual education plans (IEPs)
  • records on gifted and talent qualifications
  • copy of most recent forms submitted at the beginning of the school year
  • grade reports with teacher comments
  • any other email communications related to assessments
  • profiles/inventories conducted at school

In short this folder should, at a minimum, include a copy of any records/reports that your school has on file about your child. Keeping track of these documents will facilitate parent-teacher conferences and help you with understanding how you can best support their academic success.

2. Organize personal projects in a Binder

Separately, you can prepare a thick, 3-ring binder labeled with their name, school year, and grade level.

This binder can be used to hold assignments and writings that your child produced during the school year. I’m not suggesting that you have to keep every scrap of paper that they colored. I do recommend that you keep any journal entries and assignments that demonstrate their creative thinking/problem solving skills development.

These are helpful for reviewing your child’s progress over the academic year and again being able to support them in areas where they may need more assistance. Likewise, these organized assignments can be used to encourage and congratulate your child on all their efforts during that grade year. You will also be surprised how much children enjoy looking through these past assignments and marveling at their development.

Your child may accumulate a lot of paper during the year. I collect their assignments regularly in a hanging file folder then put in the binder as I make time. (There’s no such thing as “having” time for this, so you’ll have to “make” the time.) Be careful not to wait too long before placing in the binder, because otherwise it will seem too overwhelming to even bother.

Why these steps will pay off in high school

I strongly encourage middle school parents to get these school records in order because in the high school years you should transfer these files to your teen!

Yes . . . I said it . . . Your teen owns their high school experience.

Throughout high school, the key attribute that your teen should develop is self-advocacy. If the parent holds all of their documents, then whenever a teen needs to answer for him/herself or request help, it will be filtered through their parents. Likewise, if your teen is college-bound, they own the college admissions process. Do you really want your teen to ask you for their PSAT score?

If you relocate, keeping these school records organized will save you a lot of time and stress with transitioning to a new school. When you’re considering any enrichment opportunities for your child, having these records on hand can save you time in knowing whether your child qualifies for consideration. The same is true for college planning, which always comes sooner than you think. In each of these cases, you will be asked to show academic records and it’s too easy to miss deadlines if you have to gather too much background information.

How are you organizing your child’s school records? Do you have an attic full of loose papers or a file cabinet of labeled folders and binders for each child? Please share any tips you have for staying organized with academic records.